Podcast podcast
Mar 27 2024

M. Nolan Gray joins Jordan McGillis to discuss the controversial plan to install an aerial transit system connecting Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium to the city.

Audio Transcript

Jordan McGillis: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. I’m Jordan McGillis, economics editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Nolan Gray. Nolan is the research director for California YIMBY, a group that advocates for regulatory reforms to make it easier to build housing in the Golden State. Nolan formerly was a New York City planner, but he now lives in Los Angeles, and we’re going to talk about that city today. Nolan, thanks for joining me.

Nolan Gray: Jordan, it’s a pleasure. Nice to be chatting.

Jordan McGillis: All right, so it is now March as we record. We are in spring training. The baseball season is starting in about a month, and we want to talk about the Los Angeles Dodgers and Dodger Stadium. Now the biggest off-season acquisition for the Dodgers, you may be thinking Shohei Ohtani, but we’re going to talk about something that’s a bit bigger, the gondola. Nolan, what’s the rundown on the Dodger Stadium gondola?

Nolan Gray: Yeah, absolutely. I think most Dodgers fans are probably paying attention to the fact that Ohtani just got married or announced that he was married, kind of an odd story, but for us urbanists and city thinkers, an exciting story is this gondola project. So as anybody who’s visited Dodger Stadium knows, it’s notoriously difficult to get in and out of the stadium. This is very much built in a post-war suburban era where the notion was everyone would drive to Dodger Stadium and it’s a bit of a headache to get in and out. There’s been proposals nearly for as long as the stadium’s been built to improve transit alternatives, and there are good express buses.

But one idea proposed by Frank McCourt, who is a co-owner of the parking lots, it’s a long and confusing history, is a proposal to add a gondola that would connect Dodger Stadium to Union Station by way of Chinatown. So for those who don’t know, gondola would be cable cars flying through the beautiful blue skies of Los Angeles above existing communities over the ridge line into the Chavez Ravine where Dodger Stadium is today. In the last few weeks, the Los Angeles Metro Board certified the environmental impact review as complete, and so the politics around it are really starting to heat up.

Jordan McGillis: What’s the distance that this gondola expands will span?

Nolan Gray: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know exactly how long it is.

Jordan McGillis: Okay. Somewhere in the vicinity of perhaps a mile or two, or am I exaggerating?

Nolan Gray: Yeah.

Jordan McGillis: Okay.

Nolan Gray: It’s really solving a last-mile problem. So, the idea is that that folks will be able to take trains or buses or even commuter trains into Union Station and then cable right over the hills into the stadium.

Jordan McGillis: And as you referenced, the Dodger Stadium parking lagoon is quite notorious, especially if you’re a San Francisco Giants fan. Not a pleasant place to be after a ball game between those two clubs. Can you give our listeners a sense of the different immediate surroundings that you would experience going to a game at Dodger Stadium versus something like Yankee Stadium in the Bronx or Citi Field in Queens?

Nolan Gray: Yeah, so a lot of these beautiful historical ball fields, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, they’re surrounded by dense urban fabric. Right. So it’s easy to maybe go out and have dinner or a drink or a show before or after a game. And this is a really nice amenity for fans. There’s also transit supporting densities around these stations. So there’s a lot of easy rail transit, and this is true even for Citi Field, which is a newer ball field, but it’s able to accommodate more of the transit to give people different options to get in and out of the park. Los Angeles, somewhat infamously, is completely surrounded by huge parking lots and getting to the nearest bar or restaurant or theater requires sitting in traffic on a few very limited access roads.

So purely from a fan-amenity perspective, I think there’s an appreciation that this could be a better experience. There’s also just this reality that California is reckoning with an extreme housing shortage, and when we were thinking where are we going to build the many tens of thousands of units that Los Angeles needs to build, it’s hard to ignore this giant, essentially parking desert that’s only a few miles away from downtown and major job centers.

Jordan McGillis: Now, downtown LA itself is not exactly considered the most premier of destinations for the sorts of urban amenities that you’re talking about, but it is improving. I visited some friends there recently and went to a bar in DTLA. Would you presume that people might take the gondola and then hang out longer post-game downtown?

Nolan Gray: Yeah, I think that’s a possibility. Or have a dinner in Chinatown or downtown. And as you mentioned, downtown is increasingly becoming a destination for a nightlife. Many downtowns, like currently downtown Los Angeles, are facing issues with office leases expiring and figuring out how we’re going to retool some of our downtown areas. But absolutely. This is an opportunity to better integrate various parts of the city that will all hopefully become enriched by better connections.

Jordan McGillis: Back to the parking lots. I don’t know how much experience you personally have with going to games there, but is there informal commerce that takes place in those parking lots where vendors are legally or illegally setting up in the back of pickup trucks or carving out their stalls to sell hot dogs or sell merchandise, things like that?

Nolan Gray: That’s an interesting question. You do see a lot of vendors before you past the gate, but generally once you’re in the parking lot, I’ve not seen a lot of vending. Although I will say I’ve generally started taking the express bus in just because the experience of driving in and out of Dodger Stadium is so painful.

Jordan McGillis: Where do you take the bus from?

Nolan Gray: You can take the bus from Union Station currently.

Jordan McGillis: Okay.

Nolan Gray: So I’ll take the train into Union Station and then take a bus out. I think this is becoming more popular as an option as people sort of realize this actually, you can have drinks at the game and be able to get home safely without having to worry about sitting in traffic or other considerations.

Jordan McGillis: One of the few advantages that the San Diego Padres have, I live in the San Diego area, over the Dodgers is that the stadium here is immediately in our urban area, and there’s a lot of opportunities to walk out of the stadium after a ball game and go enjoy yourself on the town. That’s a newer stadium built, I think around the turn of the 21st century. Dodger Stadium was built in 1962, and there’s an interesting history to this tract of land that predates the stadium and facilitated its arrival. Can you give us a bit of that history?

Nolan Gray: Yeah, absolutely. So Dodger Stadium, for those who don’t know, is in a part of the city called Chavez Ravine. Prior to the 1950s, there were three communities there, La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop. These were working middle class Hispanic communities that were in one sense very close to LA, but many other senses, very disconnected from the city. It was a very informal, scrappy, folks pulling themselves up by their bootstraps type of community. In the late 1940s, the federal government passes the Housing Act of 1949, which authorizes local governments to engage in mass eviction in order to build public housing campuses. So, Chavez Ravine comes into the crosshairs of this program, and they begin the process of purchasing and clearing the land with the idea of building a new public housing campus.

In the early ‘50s, the politics turned pretty aggressively against the idea of building public housing in Los Angeles. And so, the city is in this unusual situation where they’ve cleared a lot of the land in Chavez Ravine. They’ve engaged in an eminent domain, paid people out and taken the land, but not all of it. But so they have this campus where there’s still this patchwork of some holdouts still there and no actual public housing plans for the site. And so, this is around the time that the Dodgers are desperately trying to get a brand new stadium in New York City. Robert Moses at once, not a big fan of organized sports, of watching sports and somewhat in his words, skeptical of funding a private project, basically denies Dodgers management. At the same time Los Angeles, which at the time did not have a Major League team, is keenly interested in getting one. And so the stars start to align. And this land that had been seized for what was theoretically a public purpose, public housing is then deeded over to private operator, the current Dodgers program. Very controversial history in politics.

Jordan McGillis: That jogged my memory. There is the really fascinating history in Brooklyn of the Dodgers exodus. Obviously it was devastating to a lot of people that grew up rooting for that team through the early half of the 20th century. You can still find the location of home plate at Ebbets Field in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, if you know where to look. There’s a golden home plate that’s basically on the sidewalk in front of a housing, I don’t know if it’s a housing project exactly or if it’s a just normal apartment building, but there in Flatbush you can find that home plate and I’ve done so. It’s a bit depressing to see where that beautiful stadium once sat and is now something that’s a lot less attractive. But hopefully out in Los Angeles there’s a bright future for Dodger Stadium. What do you see the next 10 to 20 years looking like? What’s the best-case scenario incorporating this gondola? What’s the worst-case scenario?

Nolan Gray: And on this history, I mean it’s funny because we’re talking about the history a little bit more because it really is a prelude to what’s happening now. Right. So when the Dodgers first move out there, there’s this big giant public conversation of like, is this an appropriate use of public resources, right, to give this giant piece of land and to continue clearing people from their homes to what is essentially a private business? Right. And so the city actually has a giant referendum on the issue in 1958 and the proposal to actually deed Chavez Ravine to the Dodgers program only wins by I think like 3 percent. I mean, it is incredibly close election, very contentious, but kind of an unusual coalition of the Hispanic community of Los Angeles who are shocked at the clearances of these communities, more progressive democratic coalition there, along with a more conservative, market-oriented, the government should not be in the business of handing out favors for private businesses.

And I go back to this even though you’re asking about the gondola, because in many cases it’s an interesting rerun of the unusual discourse around the gondola, right? So the current proposal is the business owner, Frank McCourt, previously the owner of the Dodgers program, but who sold the actual program but maintains a 50 percent ownership stake in the actual parking lots around the field is proposing to build a gondola. It would be privately funded, and operations funded by private revenues. The cost has increased to about 500 million. The proposal is to increase, excuse me, raise revenue through endorsements and branding and fees collected on alternatives to game days. But there’s concern, right, of like, is this going to be something that the public’s going to have to kick in money for? Is this something that’s going to compete against public alternatives to getting to and from Dodger Stadium?

And then of course, the elephant in the room of is this actually just setting up a large redevelopment around Dodger Stadium because they’ve put out and somewhat inflated ridership numbers. And as you know, of course, outside of the 80 or so games that might be played at Dodger Stadium in a year, there’s not going to be very much use for a gondola. And so there’s a lot of conversation about is this part of a broader plan and the politics of that issue and this overarching question of how this land should be used and the role of public and private operators and making these types of investments.

Jordan McGillis: Is there any California YIMBY position on these developments?

Nolan Gray: I’m following it with interest as an Angeleno, but yeah, I think probably YIMBYs and other housing advocates will become much more interested in this as there’s a firmer housing proposal for Dodger Stadium. But right now, the actual folks proposing the gondola are being a little bit sheepish about their long-term plans, which is frankly probably stimulating distrust in the gondola project.

Jordan McGillis: Can you give us a bit more on the political dynamics around these potential developments and the other housing dynamics that you deal with with California YIMBY?

Nolan Gray: Sure. So I mean, of course in Los Angeles as in many California cities as in New York, every new proposal for development is highly, highly politicized. This project’s going to depend on a lot of public approvals, and there’s already conversations starting about what is the long-term plan for building this gondola? What’s the long-term plan for redeveloping the parking lots around Dodger Stadium? It’s a bit strange that the folks pushing for the gondola are not just coming out and saying, yes, this is part of a long-term plan to redevelop these parking lots because they’ve actually modeled that, on the one hand, they’re saying, well, this is going to dramatically reduce the number of people who need to drive to Dodger Stadium. We’re going to give them an alternative. They’re framing this as a green alternative. On the other hand, this would cut down into their bottom line, which is parking revenue.

And so, discourse is kind of sort of starting, but also not starting about what is actually going to be the long-term redevelopment of this site. And that gets us in the back to the classic politics of housing development in Los Angeles. Is this going to gentrify surrounding working-class areas? How much affordable housing is going to have to be included on the site, et cetera. Similar plans to do parking lot baseball redevelopments in Anaheim and Oakland have fallen through over the very tricky politics and in the case of Anaheim, corruption scandals. But cities like San Francisco are proceeding with Enfield development, and of course in many cities across the U.S. are doing this. And so I think hopefully folks can take a more proactive positive view of how do we get to yes, rather than everyone coming up with reasons why this can’t happen, which I fear is the direction we’re going in right now.

Jordan McGillis: All right. On that somber note I’m going to ask you, what are you most optimistic about right now in Los Angeles or perhaps California more broadly in the work that you do with California YIMBY?

Nolan Gray: Oh, that’s a great question. I think things are actually getting better in Los Angeles. The city is rapidly making new investments in transit infrastructure. I think the city is motivated by the impending arrival of the World Cup and the Olympics. So I think we’re doing some prudent investments that are long overdue. The city’s also building housing, sometimes begrudgingly because of state interventions, sometimes because of local leadership. Los Angeles is at a 40-year permitting high. We’re building more houses than we’ve built in many decades. I think that’s an exciting thing. Los Angeles has been the epicenter of the accessory dwelling unit building boom, that’s been happening all across California. We’ve had many thousands of new homes going up in backyards and garages across the city.

So I would say I would be optimistic about Los Angeles. I always say with Los Angeles, right, everything that’s amazing about Los Angeles can’t be taken anywhere else. You can’t take our amazing weather. You can’t really take a long-term entertainment industry. You can’t really take beautiful mountains and beaches and everything that sucks about Los Angeles is fixable. We know how to manage traffic, we know how to get housing prices down. We just need local leaders who are willing to take the risks and stand up for these no-brainer policy interventions.

Jordan McGillis: Good stuff, Nolan. Where can our listeners go to follow your work and California YIMBY’s?

Nolan Gray: So, I’m on X @MNolanGray. And you can find me there and most of my work, it’s shared there. California YIMBY is also on Twitter, @CAYIMBY and you can check out our website cayimby.org and see some of the work that we’re up to.

Jordan McGillis: Excellent. Nolan, thank you so much for joining me.

Nolan Gray: My pleasure.

Photo: adamkaz/iStock

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